Roger Ballen’s Outland is an archetypal series of images he began work on in 1995. No single element of each picture explains the format (every picture is square) but the complex whole served in simple black and white gives an unmistakable impression that you are seeing this photographer’s work. Ballen’s pictures make you look and look again, senses taking in the composite blend of the absurd, ordinary, funny, ridiculous, worrying, familiar, haunting, dreamy, stark, homely, poetic and, strange.
The image is all – the viewer seeks out meaning in captured and frighteningly busy moments in time.
Ballen compares his work to fossils, indelible and enigmatic physical impressions of a remote life for the soulful to contemplate over and over. And like fossils, what you see has been reincarnated as a legacy, a gilgul of breath and stone. There is a sense that Ballen is acting as curator for a dying presence, seeking to leave behind something of substance before it changes.
In the “About Roger” section of his website, visitors are told more about the work:
Roger Ballen was born in New York in 1950 but for over 30 years he has lived and worked in South Africa. His work as a geologist took him out into the countryside and led him to take up his camera and explore the hidden world of small South African towns. At first he explored the empty streets in the glare of the midday sun but, once he had made the step of knocking on people’s doors, he discovered a world inside these houses which was to have a profound effect on his work. These interiors with their distinctive collections of objects and the occupants within these closed worlds took his unique vision on a path from social critique to the creation of metaphors for the inner mind. After 1994 he no longer looked to the countryside for his subject matter finding it closer to home in Johannesburg.
Over the past thirty years his distinctive style of photography has evolved using a simple square format in stark and beautiful black and white. In the earlier works in the exhibition his connection to the tradition of documentary photography is clear but through the 1990s he developed a style he describes as ‘documentary fiction’.
“With most pictures I get a good sense that I’ve got the depth of the picture, I get a good sense that what is in front of me is saying something important to me and could say something important to other people. When I feel there’s this complexity to the work, this deeper emotion, or deeper metaphor, that’s really when the light goes green and I know I’ve got to take that picture. It’s something I can’t define with words. The best pictures are the ones I don’t understand. But if I feel there’s this deeper meaning that somehow keeps coming back to the picture, that the picture is actually challenging my mind the that’s the picture I’ve got to get.
“I never start with words. Never ever. If I can define the picture in words then it’s usually a simplistic picture. If a word fits it, then I shouldn’t use the picture. A lot of photographers start out with the words but if you start out with a word then you’re already prejudiced. You’re not working in your medium.”